There are dozens of chemotherapy drugs that doctors can prescribe. They’re often divided into groups based on how they work and what they’re made of. Each group of drugs destroys or shrinks cancer cells in a different way.
Some drugs damage the DNA of cancer cells to keep them from making more copies of themselves. They are called alkylating agents, the oldest type of chemotherapy. They treat many different types of cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, and sarcoma, as well as breast, lung, and ovarian cancers. Some examples of alkylating agents are cyclophosphamide, melphalan, and temozolomide. As they kill bad cells, though, they can also destroy your bone marrow in the process, which can cause leukemia years later. To lower this risk, you can take the drugs in small doses. One type of alkylating agent -- platinum drugs like carboplatin, cisplatin, or oxaliplatin -- has a lower risk of causing leukemia.
One type of chemo drug interferes with the normal metabolism of cells, which makes them stop growing. These drugs are called antimetabolites. Doctors often use them to treat leukemia and cancer in the breasts, ovaries, and intestines. Drugs in this group include 5-fluorouracil, 6-mercaptopurine, cytarabine, gemcitabine, and methotrexate, among many others.
Anthracycline chemotherapy attacks the enzymes inside cancer cells’ DNA that help them divide and grow. They work for many types of cancer. Some of these drugs are actinomycin-D, bleomycin, daunorubicin, and doxorubicin, among others. High doses of anti-tumor antibiotics can damage your heart or lungs. So your doctor will have you take them for a short time.
Drugs called mitotic inhibitors stop cancer cells from making more copies of themselves. They can also stop your body from making the proteins that cancer cells need to grow. Doctors might prescribe them for breast and lung cancers and types of myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma. Mitotic inhibitors include docetaxel, estramustine, paclitaxel, and vinblastine.
Another type of medicine, called topoisomerase inhibitors, also attacks enzymes that help cancer cells divide and grow. They treat some types of leukemia and cancer of the lung, ovaries, and intestines, among other types. This group of medicine includes etoposide, irinotecan, teniposide, and topotecan. Some of them, though, may raise your odds of getting a second cancer a few years later.
Steroids are drugs that act like your body’s own hormones. They are useful in treating many types of cancer, and they can keep you from having nausea and vomiting after a round of chemo. They can also prevent allergic reactions to some of the drugs. Some of the steroids your doctor might prescribe are prednisone, methylprednisolone, and dexamethasone.
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Advances in Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety